“I’m spiritual, but not religious”, said my new neighbor. It was the first time I’d ever heard this perspective. Since then, it’s become a familiar mantra. Oddly enough, there’s part of it I like. I grew up in the modern era where spirituality was, in some ways, looked down on. It wasn’t so much that religion itself had died out, but that the spirituality behind it was seen as relatively unimportant compared to the “real” world of rationality and scientific empiricism. These were things that could be tangibly demonstrated, while spirituality was more subjective and harder to prove; a sort of mushy thinking at best – more of a feeling; not real knowledge.
In recent years, more people have come to realize that we are spiritual as well as physical beings and that our spiritual state matters – whatever form it takes. We’re not just biological machines. So interest in spirituality is on the rise. I think that’s good. It’s healthy.
On the other hand, as a Christian, I have some concerns about this statement.
Potential problems about taking an “I’m spiritual, but not religious” stance
1. “Spiritual but not religious” itself is ambiguous in its meaning
It might indicate that the person is a Christian, but stays away from organized religion and church. It might mean that the person is syncretistic – someone who combines various religions and philosophies to make their own unique blend; a sort of spiritual smorgasboard. Or it could just be a sort of vague put-off. The person is aware of their spiritual aspect, but hasn’t paid much attention to it and avoids religion.
2. “Spiritual but not religious” shows confusion about the word “religious”
I discuss the word “religion” in depth in article #23 on our website: <ivevfree.com>. My point in that article is that everyone has religion, as the word was originally used. Religion is the collection of spiritual beliefs and practices that we live by. In that sense, even atheism is a religion. What is usually meant by “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is that they don’t follow any particular organized religion, such as Christianity or Buddhism.
3. “Spiritual but not religious” opens the door to self-serving syncretism
This is especially addressed to non-Christians, but it can bite half-hearted believers as well. The view allows us to embrace the parts of Scripture which we which seem to serve our purposes while rejecting those truths found uncomfortable, inconvenient, or challenging to believe. But, if the Bible is true, one of its intents is to transform us in some of those various areas. We’re naturally sinners who need to embrace the whole truth of Scripture if we’re to become whom we were made to be. This doesn’t mean, however, that we must accept everything that organized religion teaches. Some of it is man-made and is mistaken.
4. “Spiritual but not religious” rejects the Bible’s clear teaching on our need for the local church
We need each other. The Bible makes it clear that, as Christians, we’re part of a group; a connected group. Various metaphors are used, such as Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14), family of God (John 1:12), and Bride of Christ (Rev. 19-17-19). Paul is blunt in 1 Corinthians 12, where he says, concerning Christ’s body: “21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” Each body part represents an essential spiritual gift.
5. “Spiritual but not religious” rejects the local church’s need for us
1 Corinthians 12:7 notes: “7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” If I stay away from the church, also known as “organized religion”, my gift also stays away. Oh, I will use it at times to help others in my community and home, but seldom in the church where it’s most needed, not only for particular individuals, but to help balance out and complement the various other gifts. We require, for example, those with the softer gift of mercy to balance out those with stricter gifts like the gift of exhortation.
6. “Spiritual but not religious” cheats us of a chance to learn from the imperfection of a local church
Yes, you heard me right – the imperfections. Paradoxically, much of the spiritual growth we gain comes from learning to deal with the problems which invariably arise in a local church. People are sometimes mean to each other. There are power struggles. Differences of opinion arise. These all provide opportunities to grow in spiritual character. We learn kindness, humility, patience, and so on. These qualities aren’t learned by merely reading books or meditation. They’re learned in the heat of battle; in the laboratory of actual interaction. Ironically, if these struggles are handled well with the help of the Holy Spirit, we also draw closer to one another. Spiritual closeness is what a church family is all about, but it takes blood, sweat and tears to get there. Which leads to the next point.
7. “Spiritual but not religious” robs us of the support of fellow soldiers in our spiritual battles
Predators know that a lone animal is far easier to take down than one who travels protected by the herd. You and I live in a world circled by spiritual predators; Satan, the “roaring lion” being the worst. In us and around us sin battles for control. We need to watch each others’ backs. You’re not as bulletproof as you may think. I’m currently helping a serious Christian brother fight internet pornography.
8. “Spiritual but not religious” sends a message about Christians to the world
Jesus says, in John 13:35: 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” One of the great attractions of Christ to unbelievers is the solid fellowship and friendship of believers. On the other hand, if we mainly avoid contact with one another, this sends a more negative message. It’s puzzling to them that we share the same God but have little interest in or commitment to one another
9. “Spiritual but not religious” does not reflect Jesus’ attitude toward His family
Jesus is intensely interested in each of His children and also deeply concerned about His Body, as represented by local churches. Read His seven letters to the churches in Revelation, chapters two and three. How can we love God without loving His kids? His Body? His Bride? It’s unnatural to be a solo Christian. Those filled with Christ’s love also love what He loves.
To those of you who aren’t followers of Christ, I hope you haven’t zoned out during the last few points. Yes, organized religion has its problems. It’s filled with people who are simultaneously saints and sinners. We mess up sometimes and veer off of God’s chosen path. Historically, there have been some bad moments. But read the words of Jesus. These bad moments are aberrations from what He intended. One day, in heaven, they will drop away. Christ has so much to offer you through Himself and His local church. Go for it. Give Him a chance. It’s an eternity-changing gift of true life.